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BICOM Daily Briefing December 9 2003

Last updated: 2003-12-09

The main focus of British news coverage of the Middle East today is on the vote in the UN General Assembly instructing the International Court of Justice in the Hague to investigate Israel’s construction of the Security Fence. The Guardian today features an article on Israeli involvement in training US troops in counter-terror tactics. The paper also has a report from Tel Aviv, concerning social and community activism in Israel. The Financial Times has an article by former senior US officials Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, calling for the renewal of dialogue in the Middle East. The Financial Times, BBC Online and Sky News all have pieces investigating the implications of the failure by Palestinian terrorist groups to reach a truce in Cairo. The Times Law section features an article by Alan Baker, legal adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he argues that Israel has clearly upheld the Fourth Geneva Convention in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israeli press leads with the vote in the UN General Assembly. Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post also report on Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz’s decision concerning the dismantling of illegal outposts. Maariv, in addition, leads with a report on a statement by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicting the creation of 150,000 new jobs in Israel by the end of 2004. Haaretz and Israel Radio this morning reported a statement by noted Haifa University demographer Arnon Sofer to the effect that an Arab majority already exists between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Haaretz reports on a new Peace Index poll, which shows that Israelis believe Prime Minister Sharon will make painful compromises for peace.

Quotes of the Day:

Israeli reactions to the UN vote regarding Israel’s Security Fence:

Danny Gillerman, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN  (Yediot Ahronot, 8/12): “The Fence is the result of the efforts of Yasser Arafat. Arafat built the fence. His terrorism made its construction inevitable. Without Arafat, there would not be a fence.”

Ra'anan Gissin, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman (Haaretz 8/12): “This is an attempt... to delegitimise the right of the Jewish people to have a Jewish state that they can defend."

Foreign Ministry Spokesman (Jerusalem Post, 8/12): “This is an example of the cynical manipulation of a body intended to aid peace and security, in order to help those who support terror.”

Behind the News:

UN General Assembly votes to refer issue of Security Fence to ICJ:

By a margin of 90 in favour to 8 opposed, with 74 abstentions, the UN General Assembly voted yesterday to request the International Court of Justice in The Hague to issue an advisory opinion on the legal implications of the construction of Israel’s Security Fence in the West Bank and Jerusalem area. According to officials, the advisory opinion is likely to be given in around six months. The resolution calling for the ICJ investigation, which was sponsored by 27 Arab, Muslim, and Non-Aligned countries, states that "Israel... continues to refuse to comply with international law vis-a-vis its construction of the above-mentioned wall, with all its detrimental implications and consequences." Deputy US Ambassador James Cunningham criticised the resolution as unduly one-sided and expressed concern that its adoption risked politicising the ICJ. "This is the wrong way and the wrong time to proceed on this issue," he contended. Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Danny Gillerman, noted that the vast majority of the world’s democracies, including the entire European Union, were to be numbered among the countries abstaining in the vote, or opposing the resolution. As such, Gillerman called the vote a ‘moral victory’ for Israel.

Israel has announced that it will cooperate fully with the ICJ and is expected to use the investigation as a platform to vigorously defend the construction of the Security Fence. The Israeli position will remain that the construction of the fence is a necessary measure against terrorism. Prime Minister Sharon reiterated yesterday that the fence is not intended to demarcate a border. Israel. In a statement issued last night, the Foreign Ministry Spokesman listed the main points of Israel’s argument, pointing to the fence’s already proven success in reducing terrorism, and its temporary nature.

ICJ opinions are not binding on UN member states, and Israeli officials consider that the US would likely block any attempt to impose sanctions on Israel in the wake of the ICJ investigation.

Suspected Hamas man, Canadian citizen, held by Israel:

The Israeli Security Service has revealed that it is holding a Canadian passport holder, Jamal Akkal, 23, suspected of Hamas membership and of planning to commit acts of terror against Jews and Israelis in North America. Akkal, a native of the Gaza Strip, emigrated to Canada in 1999. The Security Service said that Akkal admitted having been ordered by the Hamas to attack members of the American and Canadian Jewish communities, and visiting Israelis. The attacks were to be blamed on al-Qaida, to conceal Hamas involvement. Akkal’s detention was extended for a further 15 days at a hearing on Friday.

Foreign Minister Shalom may meet with President Mubarak:

According to a report on Galei Tsahal Army Radio yesterday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom may meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Europe this week. If the meeting takes place, it will be the first time that Mubarak has met with a representative of a serving Israeli government. Egypt has traditionally sought to play a central role in efforts toward Middle East peacemaking. As such, and given Mubarak’s latest statements encouraging the re-opening of contacts between Israel and Syria, reports of the planned meeting are leading to much speculation among commentators.

Israelis believe Sharon will make ‘painful compromises':

According to Haaretz, a new Peace Index poll shows that there has been no significant erosion in public support amongst Israeli Jews for the government's current policy on foreign and security issues. Only a minority, 33%, believe that Sharon has missed opportunities to renew negotiations with the Palestinians and an even smaller minority, 21%, views his policies toward the Palestinians as too rigid. 60% of those questioned said they believe that when Sharon says he seeks to advance the negotiations even at the price of painful compromises, he means what he says. 75% of the Jewish public support holding negotiations for peace with the Palestinians, whilst 65% support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the context of an advanced stage of negotiations for peace. These are the main results of the Peace Index survey for November, which was conducted from November 30-December 2, 2003.

Comment and Opinion:

Alan Baker (The Times, 09/12) “While the occupation of territory, as such, is not illegal, especially where, as in Israel’s case, the occupation arises through the legitimate exercise of self-defence, there are serious formalistic problems regarding the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The convention envisages the occupation of the sovereign territory of one state by another. Were Israel, having survived a murderous attack by its neighbours in 1967, to have declared the convention formally applicable to the territories that came under its control, it would have implied that Jordan and Egypt, universally recognised as illegal occupiers, as sovereigns in these territories.

But however legitimate, these juridical concerns are clearly no reason to deprive the residents of these areas of protection. For this reason, Israel undertook to set aside the juridical issues, and to apply the humanitarian provisions of the convention de facto. To this day, the general staff orders of the Israel Defence Forces require every soldier to act in accordance with the provisions of all four Geneva Conventions.

In fact, in many instances Israel has gone beyond the requirements of the convention. Although not required by the convention, it has facilitated movement and trade between the local population and neighbouring countries, including pilgrimages to Mecca, and has refrained from using capital punishment even where sanctioned by the convention. It also permits any resident of the areas a right of direct appeal to the Supreme Court for judicial review of any of Israel’s acts in the territories. This fiercely independent court frequently rules against or limits Israeli security measures because, as Chief Justice Barak stated in a recent case: “This is the price we pay for being a democracy; even though democracies fight with one hand tied behind their back, ultimately they have the upper hand.”

This application of the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention by Israel has continued even though, under the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, Israel transferred extensive powers and responsibilities to the Palestinian side, and despite Israel having to face threats never contemplated by the drafters of the convention. Drafted more than 50 years ago, the convention envisages a situation in which hostilities have ceased and the occupying power has total control over the territory in question. The situation faced by Israel in the territories raises unprecedented challenges not addressed by the convention: daily attacks by heavily armed terrorist groups, suicide bombers, the passive — and frequently active — support of the Palestinian leadership for murderous assaults on Israeli civilians, and the cynical abuse of international “peace activists” as human shields for terrorist activity in the heart of civilian population centres. In these impossible circumstances, seeking to defend its population from a brutal wave of bombings in buses, shopping malls, discotheques and restaurants, Israel’s application of the provisions of the convention remains the only instance in history — with the exception of the recently established administration in Iraq — in which these provisions have been applied in practice.”

Jerusalem Post  (9/12): “Israel, you may have noticed, suffers from a public-relations problem. Israelis who don't rely on CNN or the BBC for their news don't fully appreciate how poorly Israel fares on Western TV screens, much less how damaging this is to basic Israeli interests. Perhaps that's the reason why the Israeli Foreign Ministry employs only six people to deal full-time with the foreign press. Perhaps, too, that's the reason why it's only now that the Israeli cabinet is holding back-to-back discussions on the subject. The next one takes place this coming Sunday. The problem, we contend, is fundamentally an Israeli one. Foreign Ministry spokesmen tend to dwell on the fact that the Arab world speaks with 22 voices, whereas we speak with one. They note that a dictatorial Palestinian Authority can impose restraints on the foreign media that a democratic Israel cannot.

They observe that IDF tanks rolling through Ramallah make for powerful anti-Israel TV footage, whereas Palestinian terrorists operate by stealth. All this is true, but it's a counsel of despair. It's also a short step from the view, put forward a decade ago by then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, that Israel's PR problem is, at root, a policy problem. Back then, Peres reckoned the problem had been solved with the signing of the Oslo Accords and effectively moved to shut down the government's information efforts.

Yet if there's a lesson in our Oslo experience, it's that the policy is not the problem. In 1999 and 2000, Israel made good faith territorial offers to Syria, withdrew from Lebanon, and offered the moon to Yasser Arafat. When the violence began in September 2000, we learned just how cheap was the currency with which we had sought to purchase the world's goodwill.

For years, Palestinians have been making an argument about occupation. This is an argument about ends. We have been making an argument about terrorism. This is an argument about means. However much the impartial observer may deplore terrorism, a persuasive argument about ends will always trump one about means.

We too, therefore, need to begin speaking about ends. We need to start saying that our status as a Jewish state remains threatened by neighbors who, after more than 50 years, still do not recognize our right to exist. We need to explain that Palestinian suicide bombings express a genocidal impulse, not a (misguided) quest for freedom. We need to begin suggesting that the problem with a PLO-led Palestinian state is its moral and political nature, not its territorial extent. We need to remind the world that relevant UN resolutions begin with the number 181, not 242. None of this should be difficult. The key is to remain "on message." If the Palestinians can do it, so can we.”

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Israel Briefing supplied by BICOM